Don’t get me wrong, I thought the first episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was great. I enjoyed watching it and look forward to future episodes. But I also know that genealogy is about the details. So now that I’ve had a chance to rewatch the episode, I am going to break down the details and ask more questions. Warning: this will be a long blog post, so I’ve tried to break it up a bit with headers. I also hope that in my nitpicking, I haven’t gotten anything wrong. I confused even myself while I was writing this, so I hope I didn’t mix up any of the details.
At the beginning of the show, Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) visited her brother, I think as an introduction to her and her family. He made an unusual comment that he thought “there was no lineage”, referring to his thinking that both sides of the family were recent immigrants. There are people who think that once your ancestors are no longer from America, there is nothing else to do. I wonder why people think that? True, for some locations, you may never get a single bit of information, but he wasn’t speaking of a specific ancestral line, rather the whole family in general. In my experience, if you’re searching for any of your ancestors, there is at least one familial line where records can be found, and usually more than one.
SJP mentioned that her father’s side was Eastern European Jewish. Her mother, Barbara, mentioned that all she heard about was German ancestry. Obviously, they couldn’t follow her entire ancestry in the 42 minutes allotted, but I would have found those interesting too.
When SJP visited her mother in New Jersey, she just walked in the door without knocking or using a key. Some people (other bloggers) thought that was very sweet, how they had that kind of close relationship. But really, does she not lock her front door? And it was interesting how her mother was always just around the corner. Maybe it was a small house. :-)
Prime Time TV
Sitting at a microfilm reader for hours is too dull for a prime time TV show, but sometimes the traveling across the country puts some people off. In fact, Friday night, one of my non-genealogy tweeps was talking about watching Friday night TV and I suggested WDYTYA. She thanked me afterwards but said she doesn’t “have the money to fly back & forth across the country” though she did find the show interesting. That is an unfortunate effect of the show. Do people think that they really have to do that much traveling to research their genealogy?
SJP’s first stop after visiting her mother was Cincinnati where she met with Natalie Cottrill. Natalie produced a death certificate, an 1860 census page, and an obituary. SJP’s ancestor John Eber Hodge was born in September 1850, while his father died in 1849. Can anyone count how many months that is? Here’s a fun voice-over from SJP: “I’ve asked Natalie to pull the California census information from ancestry.com…” Really? I doubt that SJP actually asked for that but more likely Natalie had already done the search and they needed a segue to show the result. Maybe the sponsor wanted an extra plug in the show? He showed up in the 1850 census, but one of the possibilities was that he abandoned his family. Did they look for him in the 1860 census? They did check that to narrow down their search for him, I hope. Trying to find out what happened to him, that seemed the logical and easy thing to search for next.
I like that Natalie mentioned that the 1849 death was a mystery, though not necessarily because it was more than nine months between his death and the birth of his son. I wish she had mentioned that mysteries and inconsistencies were a normal part of genealogy research, or had pointed out that the obituary is not a primary source for the deceased’s father’s death and that more research needed to be done. In all likelihood, she did mention those things, but they just didn’t make it into the episode.
Stephen Aron at Cincinnati’s Museum Center produced another document, showing that John Hodge teamed up with several others and went to El Dorado, California, sending her across the country to find out what happened.
Jon McCabe, the local historian in El Dorado, showed her where he may have mined, eventually producing a letter written by John Gish, his business partner, that mentioned his death. This entire sequence, I believe, was more for entertainment than for research. There was no real reason for her to go there as I think the letter was found in Cincinnati. But that’s prime time TV: it’s for entertainment.
SJP then headed to Boston, almost on a whim if you go by the voice-over, to see if her Hodge family was part of the old New England Hodge family, as Natalie had mentioned to her earlier.
She met with Josh Taylor of the New England Historical Genealogical Society. This was one of the parts I really didn’t like. Again, I sincerely hope that everything important was cut from the show for time. He told SJP her genealogy going back for several generations, without any mention of how he found the information. John S. Hodge was the son of Eber Hodge, born just after the Revolution, his mother was Abigail Elwell, her father was Jabez, son of Samuel, son of Samuel, and son of Samuel born about 1635 in New England. What kind of documents did he use to find that? There wasn’t mention of a single source.
Checking the Great Migration Study Project of immigrants from 1620-1635, they searched another new name, Robert Elwell, who was Samuel’s father. Why didn’t he just mention that person before? Was that few seconds of dialogue cut for time? The computer showed that Robert Elwell immigrated in 1634, but this wasn’t stated aloud. Further computer details revealed that his first three children were Mary, Samuel, and Josiah, and there were many more details that I don’t feel the need to mention.
When SJP read the name of Salem on the record, of course the Salem Witch Trials came to mind for her and probably most people who were watching. Taking place in 1892, Josh said that Robert died around 1670 or 1680 but that his son Samuel would have been alive at that time. The computer screen stated the exact date of 18 May 1683 for Robert’s death. Maybe he just didn’t remember that when he mentioned it.
Actual Research Shown
SJP went on to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, where librarian Elaine Grublin helped her. In these scenes, they showed SJP doing her own research for Esther Elwell, wife of Samuel, looking at the computer database, copies of a document, and one original document. Many people complained that, with an original document, they were supposed to wear gloves and that the pencil shouldn’t have been anywhere near it. Another genealogist friend of mine told me that the gloves are not to protect the document but to protect the hands from the 300 year old grime that is on them. As for the pencil, well, I agree with that one.
Also, I don’t doubt that these documents were found and probably waiting for her to arrive. Really, would they travel to a library, film crew and all, if they didn’t know ahead of time that they would find something?
After reading the warrant about her 10th great-grandmother, Esther Elwell, being accused of witchcraft, SJP went on to Danvers, Massachusetts, where she met with historian Mary Beth Norton. Mary Beth pointed out that SJP’s ancestor was lucky because the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which convicted and sentenced every person who was accused of witchcraft, was dissolved on 22 October and the accusation came on 8 November, so her ancestor was not tried.
The biggest part about this whole section of the show that bothered me was, when was Samuel born? I mean the Samuel who was the son of Samuel and Esther. That is kind of an important point. The details were not stated or shown on the computer screen. Was the next generation of SJP’s family already alive or not when Esther’s life was put at risk with the accusation? That would certainly change the course of her family’s history. Samuel was born in 1635 and Esther in 1639 (as seen on the earlier computer screen). It seems to me that they may have already finished having all their children by 1892. Or maybe by then they had already skipped on to the next generation Samuel? This is where skipping details is problematic.
The final part of her journey before returning home was to visit the memorial in Salem. But SJP was told that Esther lived to be 82. So why not visit that grave since SJP was so emotionally involved in learning what happened to her?
SJP made a few comments during the show that I thought were odd. She said that she didn’t really feel American until she found that her roots in this country went back to 1635. Why did she need to trace her family back to feel like she belonged in this country? All four of my grandparents were immigrants, as is my mother. I am an American and I’ve never felt otherwise. That just seemed odd. She also thought, at the beginning of the show, that she wasn’t connected to anything historical. But why did it have to be American history to be historical? There is history in other countries as well.
After the commercial breaks, there were recaps of what came before, and before the commercials there were previews of what was coming up. Was that video montage at the end really necessary?
One other curiosity came in the credits. I have listed in this blog the names of the people who appeared on screen with SJP, but only one of those people was listed as a genealogist in the credits: Natalie Cottrill, Megan Smolenyak, Krysten Baca, and Allison Aston. Did those four do work for the entire series and some of the others were just specific to the episode? OK, so some of them were credited as historians during the episode and not genealogists.
As I stated at the beginning, I really did enjoy the episode. As Lisa Louise Cooke stated in her Genealogy Gems News this morning, the show is for entertainment and not as a how-to for genealogy, referring to so many blogs that pointed out genealogy research omissions and such. And I know this blog entry is exactly what she was talking about. But I’m just a good nitpicker and used this opportunity to put that skill to use. Genealogy research is in the details and some that seemed to be important were skipped over.
I think there was room in the episode to mention how many people were involved and how many hours of research it took to find so much information. People watching might get the mistaken impression that everything can be found indexed on the computer, historians and librarians have plenty of free time to be at your disposal, one must travel across the country to find a single document, and that all you have to do is find the right genealogist and they will already know all about your family.
Then again, the BBC version doesn’t do any of that either.